CHAMPCAR/CART: Minardi reinvents itself

In 20-plus seasons of Formula One, Minardi made it to the podium a grand total of. drum roll please. zero times. The little fish in the big pond of F1, the Faenza, Italy hopefuls were always just that, never within a sniff of the leaders save for...

In 20-plus seasons of Formula One, Minardi made it to the podium a grand total of. drum roll please. zero times. The little fish in the big pond of F1, the Faenza, Italy hopefuls were always just that, never within a sniff of the leaders save for several one-off races throughout their time period in the sport.

Their claims to fame were providing a stepping stone for young drivers who would go on to greater things, and a place where drivers of lesser ability but fuller pockets could race in the world's most prestigious series.

But it's fair to say that with Minardi's entrance into Champ Car, the underdog tag has been dropped and they are legitimate contenders. For all the talk about Newman/Haas/Lanigan, Forsythe, and Team Australia, Minardi Team USA is a worthy threat to the proverbial establishment at the top of the heap. Through three races the team has already made the podium twice.

Provided the team continues to gel in its new guise, having undergone a series of name changes over the last eight years, Minardi may well be able to sustain this early season momentum for the rest of the year.

Team co-owner Keith Wiggins has been through it all. He purchased the assets of the former Bettenhausen team prior to the 2000 season, when team owner Tony Bettenhausen, his wife and two business associates were tragically killed in a plane crash en route to the season opener. When title sponsor Herdez pulled out after 2004, Wiggins barely kept the team afloat before majority ownership was transferred to actor/comedian Cedric the Entertainer in 2006.

After that one-year period, Paul Stoddart then bought into the team and brought the Minardi name with him. Stoddart, like Wiggins, tried and failed to move up the grid in F1. During his five seasons as team principal of Minardi F1, the team scored points on only three occasions, and he sold out to Red Bull as the price was right.

Alas, Stoddart's investment brings the team a needed financial stability given its turnover over the years. According to lead driver Robert Doornbos, who has driven for both Minardi operations, it is basically a new but solid team. "There is Paul Stoddart as boss and Graham Jones for PR, but for the rest, it is a totally new team with great boys and girls," he said, "It's a pleasure working with all of them."

Doornbos has secured both top-three finishes, the former on the new street course in Las Vegas and the latter after starting 13th on a difficult track to pass in Houston. He currently leads the hotly contested Rookie of the Year standings.

Key to the Dutchman's start is engineer Michael Cannon, who provided A.J. Allmendinger with a spark during his time last year at Forsythe Racing. Cannon left the team amidst a winter of uncertainty, with doubts whether Gerald Forsythe would indeed run the second car that Allmendinger drove to five victories from nine starts last season.

"Of course, (having him) helps me as a 'rookie' in the series that I have an experienced engineer, like Mike," Doornbos raved. "It's great that he raced himself, so we can talk to each other as drivers. I look forward to the rest of the season!"

And to think that even despite this quick start, Doornbos is still adjusting to the American style of racing! Street courses are sparse in Europe, save for Monaco of course, and starting off with a new car on three consecutive concrete canyons was no small task to learn. Besides adapting to Champ Cars, just racing was mainly on his mind, as opposed to a full year testing.

"In F1 there was no possibility to race this season," he noted, "and I love racing, so the CCWS was the best option for me to combine with my duties in F1. The testing in F1 (with Red Bull) is great and has made me a much stronger driver on the technical side."

Teammate Dan Clarke's season has yet to fully get off the ground, with a myriad of mishaps befalling his first three races and only a best finish of 12th. The personable Brit (and his trademark eponymous hat) has made a name for trying daring maneuvers and sometimes coming up empty.

But there are other instances where he has been brilliant, notably taking pole position at the challenging Road America circuit last season and posting a podium in the streets of Denver. Alas, he is the only driver on the grid this year who didn't drive the new chassis in any of the pre- season tests and therefore had more to learn in a smaller time period.

Besides the team's entrance to the Champ Car paddock, Minardi has brought their fleet of two-seater Formula One cars to selected races. The innovative creation came to light in 2000 and made its United States debut at Las Vegas. Piloting the cars are Zsolt Baumgartner and Patrick Friesacher, a pair of drivers who ironically scored separate points finishes at the U.S. Grand Prix in Indianapolis ('04 and '05 respectively).

Although they have been out of racing since their days in F1, it has been an added bonus to drive the Minardi F1x2 on race weekends and give passengers the thrill and exhilaration of being in one of these land-speed rocket ships. "(Las Vegas) is quite a fast track, and the walls are close in places, so I think the passengers were able to get a good feeling for what it is like to race in this sort of environment," Friesacher commented after the two-seater's U.S. debut. "It certainly sounded like it from where I was sitting anyway!"

"We were well received by the crowd, and the race-day fans, in particular, seemed really enthusiastic," Baumgartner added. "As Patrick and I gained experience of the track, we were able to push a little harder, and judging by the reactions from our passengers, each of them experienced a pretty unforgettable moment."

I saw the team in full at Long Beach a couple weeks ago. Sitting in a restaurant for lunch I heard the scream of the F1 cars but assumed it was merely a recording, something to bide time while track activity was on break. But it was wrong to assume and after heading outside, I witnessed the cars at top speed on Shoreline Drive. It was clearly something to behold.

The exclusivity of rides in the Minardi F1x2 is not limited to celebrities, media and VIPs. But it isn't for the faint of heart, or the light of money. For $10,000 U.S., plus a mandatory physical and height/weight requirements, passengers can take a spin in the car and receive an amazing experience - plus a certificate of completion and a photo with their particular driver!

Minardi gathered a legion of fans during its time in F1, but was unable to amass the results needed to contend for victories or championships. In Champ Car, there is potential for far greater results and likewise a continuation of the support exhibited by their fanbase. A team that has undergone so many facelifts in such a short time period is now finally to a point of security. And the unique two-seater gives fans the F1 experience in an American setting. Clearly Minardi is out to change the usual routine in the Champ Car World Series.

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Series IndyCar
Drivers Paul Stoddart , Zsolt Baumgartner , A.J. Allmendinger , Gerald Forsythe , Patrick Friesacher , Tony Bettenhausen , Dan Clarke